He’s the extreme skier who rides flat out down from 6,000m peaks, but Sam Anthamatten is no reckless thrill seeker.
As an experienced mountain guide, and Faction Skis steep skier, he knows exactly how much risk he’s taking on, and through hard-worn experience has discovered the techniques that you can use to prepare your mind for any challenge, and instantly switch from ‘approach mode’ into ‘go time’ and make critical decisions about acceptable risk.
RSNG spoke to Anthamatten to discover exactly how he’s forged a mind for extreme challenges…
Hone Your Body Into A High Performance Vehicles
Like many high performers, Sam Anthamatten has his preparation dialled in. It should come as no surprise that to prepare for next-level efforts like climbing solo up vertical ice walls (using crampons and ice axes to a remote 6,200m mountain peak in Pakistan as a prelude to skiing down its 55° face) he had to get his body conditioned.
‘I do a lot of riding and ski touring in the Alps up to a high altitude – big days, 8-10 hour training days. If you want to train to do something hard then you cannot do lazy tours when you don’t have to make difficult decisions. You need to also train your mental skills and you only do that if you do harder stuff,’ he tells RSNG.
This conditioning pays dividends at very high altitude. On the 6,000m peaks of Pakistan and Nepal where Anthamatten is pushing the limits of skiing, the lack of oxygen itself becomes a challenge: ‘You can compare it with having a 20kgs backpack on right now, for the whole day and you’re not able to take it off.’
‘At the top, putting on my skis, I realised the whole wall was way steeper than I expected – it was up to 50-55°’
‘Everything you do you have that extra weight on your chest, on your shoulders and it’s super-exhausting. And you have to be able to still ski at the same level.’
Not only must you prepare for the challenge, but you have to factor in the fact that it may exceed your expectations: ‘The crazy thing was, at the top, putting on my skis, I realised the whole wall was way steeper than I expected.’
‘It was up to 50-55°. [Austria’s steepest groomed black run, called ‘Harikari’ is around 38°, on its steepest part.] I was at 6,200m breathing superhard.’ He knew that a mistake here would probably be fatal: ‘If you fell you wouldn’t stop – you would fall all the way down the mountain.’
So, how did he stay calm and able to tap into his high-performance mindset?
Use Mindful Preparation
As well as physical conditioning, Anthamatten mentally prepares for pushing past his own limits, with a well-rehearsed pre-effort checklist, which places his mind in a calm but ready state for the next day’s challenge. ‘Your body has to be on top, but mentally you have to be free.’
‘You start to do your preparation for a big line in the days before. The night before if you have a good feeling then you should go for it; but if you have a bad feeling then you don’t.’
‘I always prepare my skis when I am physically and mentally ready and I have all of my gear set out.’ Tending to his most critical piece of equipment, something he has done countless times before, allows his mind to fully contemplate what he is about to do.
‘The last piece I do is my skis – I prepare my skis and have time with myself to think. Once the skis are ready and the binding is tight, then I am ready to go.’
Visualise High Performance In The Lead Up
For steep skiers like Anthamatten, the ‘up’ can be as much of a challenge as the ‘down’. He ski tours up the slope for hours, and sometimes has to ice climb with crampons and ice axes, to access his line to ski down. You might experience a similar, tiring, physical or mental test of endurance in the lead up to your own high performance phase.
It can be a slog but while his body is working Anthamatten is preparing his mind: ‘When I hike for two, or four or whatever hours I am always visualising my line. You get almost crazy – you get into it as much as possible.’
The temptation might be to switch off to give your mind a rest, but this would be a mistake, says Anthamatten. ‘At the top you only have one chance – you have to be on point.’ Get it right and the extra mental load will be worth it: ‘Your experience is way more memorable because you have to work for it.’
Don’t Fall Into The Trap Of Following A Script
It’s easy after all of this mindful preparation, to start following a mental script of how everything is going to pan out. Just because you are well prepared does not mean the outcome is inevitable.
In a situation where high performance is mandatory, like skiing down from the top of a 4,000m mountain in the Alps, where falling just isn’t a survivable option, it pays to listen to your gut instinct, even if it means pulling the plug.
‘Last winter we were filming in Canada. It was a beautiful face with plenty of lines – I could have ridden ten lines on it. We got to the top, the heli took us to the top and left. I stood there for 20 minutes; the camera was ready, everybody else was ready – I called on the radio and said: “It’s not going to happen,”’ remembers Anthamatten.
‘It was a feeling I had, because of avalanche danger. We knew it was tricky, and with the line that I had in mind I knew I was kind of safe but still I thought: “Why? Why should I?”’
‘You feel the pressure from everyone – you have ten people who are watching, the heli, the drone, everyone is ready – with experience you learn to manage this pressure.’
Face The Consequences Of Failure
In order to be successful you need to know what failure looks like. If you are going to manage the risk/ reward of a high performance scenario, then you need to be realistic and not allow expectations to override the conditions on the day.
Anthamatten knows what it is to go into something with rose-tinted spectacles. ‘I triggered the avalanche and it took me down the mountain. I was in it and lost my skis, lost my backpack and tumbled over rocks for quite a long time.’
‘It changed the way I saw things because when I looked back on it, every decision I made beforehand was too fixed on one point. I didn’t realise the signs around me – it was completely obvious. As a mountain guide, if I took the theory it would have said “no, no, no, no” and I went for it anyway. Stupid.’
‘In the end the shit hits the fan and nobody is happy. Everybody is saying: “You had a bad feeling, why didn’t you call it?”’
This becomes even more critical when, like Anthamatten, you are pushing the limits of what high performance can achieve. For his project riding down a 6,000m peak in Pakistan and then moving onto challenges in Nepal and the Andes, the remoteness is part of the challenge.
In Pakistan even a broken leg would be life-threatening because he was three days from the nearest local village, never mind the closest hospital in Islamabad.
‘When I put in my mouthguard, tighten my boots and put some snow down my back, it’s an instant feeling of, now it’s on! It’s go time!’
Use Physical ‘Go Time’ Triggers
Looking at a steep skier standing stationary at the top of a line at 6,000m, it’s easy to wonder how you trip the switch to go from a position of relative safety, to one where you are putting it all on the line, in an instant.
How do you take that step? If you look at a challenge, whether that’s dropping into a ski run where falling isn’t an option, launching into trying to set a new running PB, or even stepping onto a stage to deliver a keynote speech, if you rely on your willpower alone to take the load, then it becomes easy for your mind to be overwhelmed.
When Anthamatten watched back his films, he realised that in the moments leading up to skiing his most dangerous, demanding lines, he was unconsciously running through a physical routine. ‘I wear a mouthguard. So when I put in my mouthguard, tighten up my boots and put some snow down my back, it’s an instant feeling of “now it’s on! Now it’s go time!”
‘It’s a physical trigger that I’ve developed it through the years. And as soon as I take the mouthguard out at the bottom of the line I relax again.’
You can develop your own physical triggers by following a routine before every high-performance effort. As Anthamatten has proven: ‘When you have a powerful experience it’s something that stays in your brain.’
Once You’re Committed Trust To Your Skill And Don’t Hold Back
As an extreme, high altitude skier Anthamatten knows a truth about life – fully committing to an effort, and using speed to your advantage can mean the difference between death and glory – literally in his case.
‘Most of the avalanche accidents that are happening are triggered by the people themselves. It’s also down the style of how people ride, and how experienced they are.’
‘A lot of the times when you have speed, you have safety. That’s why we do this crazy fast skiing because we have experienced that sometimes a little pocket of natural avalanche can pop but we’re already down at the bottom. So it brings a certain safety to be fast, but you do need a certain level of skill!’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for Faction Ski’s brand new ski movie The Collective, featuring Sam Anthamatten.